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The melodies of Anglo American ballads are simple, often built around archaic sounding pentatonic (five note) and hexatonic (six-tone) scales that may feature large jumps or gaps between notes. Songs are traditionally sung a cappella in a free meter style, or with simple guitar or banjo accompaniment. The voice is delivered in a high, tense, nasal style.

Ballads are most often set in four line stanzas, with the second and fourth line rhyming:

  • I was born in West Virginia,
  • among the beautiful hills.
  • And the memory of my childhood,
  • lies deep within me still.

While older British and Scottish ballads found in the American South dealt with themes of ancient kings, queens, and magical happenings in faraway places, the 18th- and 19th -century ballads that developed in America tell stories of everyday folk involved in everyday life events, usually set in the present or recent past. Sentimental and tragic love stories, often involving violence and death, were common. Many American ballads express strong moral sentiments, warning listeners about the consequences of irresponsible behavior:

  • I courted a fair maiden,
  • her name I will not tell
  • For I have now disgraced her,
  • and I am doomed to hell.
  • It was on one beautiful evening,
  • the stars were shining bright
  • And with that faithful dagger,
  • I did her spirit flight.
  • So justice overtook me,
  • you all can plainly see.
  • My soul is doomed forever,
  • throughout eternity.

The sentimental and tragic themes of Anglo American ballads, along with the high-pitched, “whiny” vocal style, have survived and flourished in 20th-century popular country music.

African american spirituals and gospel music

The African American Spiritual has its origins in the religious practices of 18th- and 19th -century American slaves who converted to Christianity during the great awakening revivals. The earliest spirituals were African-style ring shouts, based on simple call and response lyrics chanted against a driving rhythm produced by clapping and foot stomping. Participants would shuffle around in a ring-formation and “shout” when they felt the spirit. More complex melodies and verse/chorus structures began to evolve, reflecting the influence of European American hymn singing, and accompaniment by guitar, piano, and percussion became common. Vocal ornamentations (slides, glides, extended use of falsetto), call and response singing, and blues tonality characterized these folk spirituals. In the reconstruction period black college choirs such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers arranged folk spirituals into four-part harmony, a form that became known as the concert spiritual. A blend of African and European musical practices, the spiritual epitomizes the sycretic (blended) nature of much American folk music resulting from the mixing of Africans and Europeans in the Americas.

The texts of many spirituals are taken from Old Testament themes and stories. The slaves were particularly moved by Old Testament figures like Daniel (who was saved from the lion’s den), Jonah (who was delivered from the belly of the whale), Noah (who survived the flood), and David (who defeated the giant Goliath) who struggled and triumphed over adverse conditions. The plight of the Israelites and their escape from bondage to the promised land was an especially powerful story retold by the spirituals:

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Source:  OpenStax, Music appreciation: its language, history and culture. OpenStax CNX. Jun 03, 2015 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11803/1.1
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